The Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest and most stunning conservatories in the country, but the crown jewel of the West Side is still trying to recover from thedamage a wicked summer storm left behind
We couldn't believe it that morning in July as Air Fox passed over the conservatory, so much destruction, pane after pane smashed out, the result of an angry hail storm the night before.
In its 104 year history, nothing like it had ever happened before. The botanical paradise, a place so revered it's on the National Register of Historic Places, was flat-out pummeled by Mother Nature.
"My mouth just dropped. I couldn't believe what I saw. There was glass all over the place. It has taken us a minute to try to figure out what to do," said Eunita Rushing, President of the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance.
Rushing and the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, non-profit partners of the Park District, are still assessing the damage as they map out plans for painstaking and expensive repairs.
A scene from the recent Vince Vaughn movie, The Dilemma, shot in Chicago last year, takes place in the venerated Fern Room, where visitors can get a sense of what pre-historic Illinois may have looked like. Unfortunately, the Fern Room is still closed due to the damage as are three other large public areas.
Nevertheless, there's still plenty to see at the conservatory. From the outdoor gardens, which include a very popular labyrinth and a spectacular botanical lily pool, to the classic Palm House, where you can savor the beauty of the rare double coconut palm, the largest such specimen under glass in the world.
The Park District Director of Conservatories, Mary Eysenbach highlighted the Sugar from the Sun exhibit, where the goal is to teach people how plants are essential to everyday life.
Eysenbach is convinced the mission of the conservatory will not waver, despite the challenges caused by the storm. The key is the genius of the conservatory's designer, the legendary conservationist Jens Jensen, who Eysenbach calls the Frank Lloyd Wright of landscape architecture.
"We have an expression here, we say, 'WWJJD:' What Would Jens Jensen Do? You walk in our gardens and you walk through this conservatory and you stand on the steps of the Fern Room and your breath is taken away. And that is because he had it figured out," Eysenbach said.
The hope is the conservatory and its many supporters can weather the staggering body blow the storm delivered and come out on the other end an even stronger and better-known cultural destination.
The cleanup from the storm alone is costing over $2 million, and that doesn’t include the cost of replacing the panes of glass that were shattered. The conservatory is raising funds on its website, www.garfield-conservatory.org .